October 23, 2015

Four Reasons to Sail (and love) Madagascar

With our time in Madagascar quickly running down I wonder how I will remember this magical place. Every country we’ve ever visited (except maybe Tonga) has always been my favourite while I’m there. Immersed in the place I get mesmerized by the culture, intrigued by the politics and inspired by the landscape.

wild sifaka lemurs in Moramba Bay
But Madagascar really is my favourite.

It’s not my favourite just because of the lemurs, the brilliant sailing, the yummy rum, the incredible encounters with manta rays, turtles and giant groupers, or the way the women dance in a way that defies both physics and physiology, or because of the kind of genuine smiles we’re graced with, dozens of times a day, which make you think the world is a really great place.

dancing happens everywhere
It’s also not my favourite because plastic pollution hasn’t taken hold here yet (and the grocery stores in Mahajunga are getting rid of plastic bags so it won’t), and because subsistence living doesn’t necessarily mean abject poverty, and because we can go out for dinner and drinks on under $10. It’s my favourite because combined, all these things make Madagascar ideal for cruisers—it’s exotic, accessible and affordable.

ox carts are almost as common as cars in many places (and more common in others)
1) It’s a sailing country:

Unlike anywhere we’ve ever been, the age of sail came to Madagascar and never left. At sunrise the dhows drift out in the first whispers of wind. Lanteen rigged sails made of canvas or rice sacks and patched with old clothes are set on long yards of lashed together branches. As the breeze fills in the huge sails billow and strain against the willowy tree trunk masts. Filled with all manner of passengers and stuff (fruit, palm fronds, sand, chickens or granite stones) the crews set off with whoops and hollers to cross the wide bays on the sort of dependable breeze that makes motors seem like a foolish investment.

When we sail (race!) beside them we’re amazed by their speed. And gratified by the kind of wind that means during our travels around Madagascar we’ve only burned 40 litres of fuel (most of that because we were impatient and didn’t wait for the twice daily wind shifts). And the boats are beautiful—hewn from logs or built from raw timbers they have the kind of ancient grace that makes sailing seem noble.

And if sailing is noble, sailing around the world must be a worthy thing. Here, more than anywhere we’ve ever been, the idea we sailed here, and will sail to the next faraway place, makes sense to the people we meet.
How else would we travel?

2) Friendly Villages

Maia's dolls found a welcome home
In Moramba Bay, dugouts stopped by the boat each day to trade. Inevitably we’d offer too much for the fresh crab and prawns—but for years we’ve been keeping a box of useful things we no longer need for this very purpose. So a crab would be offered and we’d pull things out of the box: leftover fabric, empty jars, an old pot that never fit on the stove. Items would be selected and another crab would be added to our pile. Then the cadeaux (gifts) would be exchanged: a toy for the paddler’s daughter, bananas for us.

the girls claimed the pink soccer ball and we got a month's worth of mangoes
The trades needed to be fair—we’re not to give too much or it changes the balance from trade to charity. Even though the people are dressed in rags. Rags.

So we visited the three small villages to try and get rid of more stuff without getting too many crab. Each was a tidy cluster of thatch huts. One had a dhow under construction, another had a dugout being hollowed out, and the third had an injured grandfather who needed medical help. We gave out more things for the children, trying to explain they were cadeaux—my child had grown, their children could have her toys and clothes. For the grandfather we went and got medical supplies—then we decided the other village probably needed supplies so we made up another bag.

Later that night the crab arrived, and then the prawns, and the mangoes and bananas.

no diapers on the babies leads to less waste, but you need to cuddle with caution
The next day another boat was going to visit the villages so we asked them to check on the grandfather. Each boat since has been to see him and give him care. He’s healing and the crab is still being given out.

3) It’s Wild:

Andrew on Utopia let us know about the manta rays outside the entrance of Honey River. Stretching 4 meters from wingtip to wingtip the bigger of the two was trying to mate with the smaller one. The action was all on the surface—between our four boats we spent two hours watching them swoop and circle. The way they circled under and around the boats it seemed to us that when they weren’t busy trying to make baby rays they were equally curious about us.

we think they thought they were hiding
It’s not just the undersea life (and the fishing) that’s been remarkable. We’ve seen wild lemurs, incredible bird life, boa constrictors and chameleons. And when we walk the long beaches in some places we’ve been more likely to find shards of ancient Sakalava pottery than modern garbage. Subsistence living means that people haven’t learned to depend on plastic yet. Glass bottles and glass jars with lids are coveted and kept.

4) It’s Affordable:

gorgeous pulled thread table clothes that can take weeks to make sell for under $20 table runners ara less than $10
I would say cheap—but good value seems the better way to describe it. Because the things you can buy—boxes carved from hardwoods, carefully decorated fabrics, dried vanilla beans and various essential oils are all lovely quality. They just cost very little. What we don’t see here is much cheap plastic stuff. It’s not a disposable culture. Even when we traded for crab people would look over our offerings very carefully to make sure they were well made and would last.
From a cruiser perspective—while there are no marinas or big chandleries all the basics are here. There are mechanics and craftsmen and people to dive your boat and scrub the bottom. And then there's the food: fresh and delicious with enough French influence to make it a welcome change after an ocean of fish curry. And everything costs a fraction of what it would in other places. It would be easy to spend a long time here.

But while we love it—South Africa is beckoning (and rainy season is approaching). So we’re hopping down the coast while waiting for a weather window. Collecting more memories and more reasons to love Madagascar.


Colleen Friesen said...

Wow. This makes me want to get on the next flight to Madagascar. It sounds magical. Thanks for this peek into their world.

Diane, Evan, Maia and Charlie the cat said...

Colleen--I have loved Madagascar and Comoros so much. They've made me really excited for Africa--but I have a feeling that they are something very special and quite unique.

Back Porch Writer said...

Sounds like a wonderful place. Hope you enjoy it as long as you can. I love those fabrics. So pretty.

Doug and Carla Scott said...

Sounds wonderful. Guess we are going to have to check it out one of these days!

Jonathan said...

What Colleen said. A lyrical post, one of your best, for a place you loved. How fortunate for you and thank you for sharing with us.

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